Mobile Kitchens of Los Angeles: Building a Business on Wheels

There was a time in Los Angeles when food trucks were almost exclusively run by Latinos who drove into the parking lots of businesses during lunch time and cooked up greasy but tasty basic fare such as burritos, tacos, hamburgers and French fries. The “roach coach” mentality has slowly changed and Angelenos have since taken the meals-on-wheels concept and morphed it into a phenomenon known as “gourmet” food trucks.

The trend gained its notoriety in New York a few years back, but now the Los Angeles area has one of the highest concentrations of food trucks in the nation, all competing for parking space and hungry patrons willing to spend money on quality fresh food cranked out of brightly colored mobile kitchens. Lines at some trucks can be as long as waiting for a table at the hottest restaurant in town. Ethnic street food such as Vietnamese banh mi and Korean-style tacos have been the most popular type of cuisine served by trucks here, but one can find almost anything including Indian, American, Thai, grilled cheese, barbeque, breakfast, desserts and ice cream.

African-Americans have started to embrace the gourmet food truck concept and are making their mark in the city. Though they are just a small percentage, these trailblazers have rolled out trucks serving Southern cuisine, burgers, sausages, gourmet tacos and even vegetarian. Mossie Lee’s Southern Cuisine was established in February of this year and is run by Catherine Vault who is very proud of her “A” food grade prominently displayed on the front of the truck. She credits her mother Mossie Lee for her love of cooking and honored her legacy by naming the business after her. Most of the recipes also come from Vault’s mother. The signature dishes are catfish, macaroni and cheese, and hot water cornbread. Mossie Lee’s memorable tagline is “tastes so good, makes you want to kiss ya mama.” Vault and her son do most of the cooking, while her daughter is the social media guru. With social media being an important factor in this kind of business, consistently tweeting your location is critical for success. Vault loves the immediate feedback she gets from customers, whether it is good or bad.

The biggest challenge for food trucks is logistics. Where you are parked plays a huge part in the customer base and success of these businesses. Most trucks are concentrated on the outskirts of the city, saturating West Los Angeles, Santa Monica and the San Fernando Valley. You would be hard-pressed to find a gourmet food truck in Central L.A. unless there was a festival or other special event. Trucks are often invited to festivals and have alliances with each other to create their own food courts with their trucks. Building up a loyal following can take some time but with diligence and some savvy social media marketing it can pay off for a roving chef.

While some food trucks have brick-and-mortar home bases, the majority are run by driven entrepreneurs who have a passion for food but limited funds to sink into a restaurant. Buying and customizing a truck can cost more than $100,000 while leasing one can be about $2,500 a month. Figure in taxes, labor, food, gas and licenses and the cost of leasing is pricey as well. Vault leases her truck, but Barbara Burrell, owner of Sky’s Gourmet Tacos, owns hers and makes it clear from the start, “I’m serious about tacos!” Her restaurant has been in business since 1992 and serves Mexican food with a splash of soul. Sky’s is known for its shrimp tacos but the menu includes a variety of meat, fish and vegetarian tacos, burritos, quesadillas and an assortment of homemade desserts. Burrell says that she had a spiritual awakening on the grill one day and cooked up a batch of shrimp tacos for a few customers and the rest is history. She launched her food truck in June 2010 and has a booming catering business. The biggest advantage she sees to having a mobile food truck is the visibility and advertising it brings to her brand. Burrell, her son Victor and colleague Kevin Minor were chosen to participate as the only African-American contestants in the upcoming new season of “The Great Food Truck Race” hosted by Tyler Florence.

Last season’s contestant, Nana Queen’s Puddin’ and Wings, was ousted out of the competition the first week. Burrell noted that the program was a great experience for her and her crew and the publicity will be awesome. The new season is slated to start August 14 on The Food Network.

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Tracey is a Los Angeles native and professional chef. She is currently creating, testing and editing recipes for Breville Inc. along with teaching cooking classes, catering and getting inspired by the delicious life surrounding her.